Grappling with culture

8 minute read


I really struggle to form a response to this article, and to this line of criticism in general. I heartily recommend my liberal (privileged, sheltered, safe, and well-fed) friends to read this and grapple with it at least a little.

… the limits of the resistance, a partisan phenomenon with no crossover appeal. Republicans don’t share the media’s obsession with the Russia investigation and don’t particularly care whether or not Michael Flynn should have been more careful about disclosing his lobbying work.

Stopping Trump is imperative, so long as it doesn’t require the party rethinking its uncompromising stance on abortion, guns or immigration.

For me, I’m struggling to respond to the framing of - and therefore immediate dismissal or condemnation of - deep liberal issues as merely “cultural”.

Before I get into my grapples with that, as I was writing my response I realized and was taken aback by how quickly I accepted the author’s use of “cultural” as a synonym for “fanciful”. This is a rhetoric that I see come up again and again in National Review and Breitbart articles, and I didn’t realize how little friction I have against that line of thinking now. Pretty worrisome, to be honest. I believe that culture is what makes us deeply and beautifully human, so using it as an adjective to diminish the importance of a thing is in itself a fascinating tactic. And the fact that it’s working so easily on me is not something I am happy about! Ack! Maybe I’ve been reading too many National Review and Breitbart articles after all…

But back to the grapples.

On the one hand, the issues that this author dismisses as “cultural” are actually matters of life and death to many liberals. The central issue in the abortion debate isn’t really whether a fetus is alive or not, it’s whether women have the autonomy to control their own bodies and lives, or whether a roomful of men get to decide our fates. Gun control isn’t about restricting access to recreation or stripping you of the ability to protect your family, it’s about being able to walk in the streets or go to school and be relatively sure that you won’t get shot. Immigration isn’t about trying to dismantle American culture and communities and forcing us all to change, it’s about giving every human a chance to fulfill their own potential, and about welcoming others with open arms and hearts. So obviously our stances on these issues are not merely “cultural” (in the dismissive sense of the word that the author intended) - they’re about autonomy, dignity, and the right for humans to live our lives to their full potential. When conservatives rail against any of these issues, it’s really hard to not see them as direct attacks on my and others’ humanity.

On the other hand, the opposition is just as deep (and, from our point of view, can seem just as baselessly “cultural”). The issue of abortion is, quite literally, an issue of life or death (according to much conservative rhetoric, but obviously being pro-birth isn’t the same as being pro-life). It’s deeply about morality, and about protecting the most helpless among us - we liberals think that’s one group of people, but some conservatives think it’s the unborn, helpless babies. Different names for the same thing, in a way. Gun rights are about protecting yourself and your loved ones from harm - and being able to do it yourself. Immigration is about the security of having a job, of still having relevance and a purpose in your own community. Through these lens, the opposition to our own “cultural” issues, arguments which we also often see as rooted in irrational identity politics, is really just about autonomy, dignity, and the ability for everyone to live their lives to their full potential. If you told me that a whole party of people (liberals, that’s us) was against all that - obviously I wouldn’t vote for them no matter what!

“It’s not just that national Democrats don’t believe any give on these issues is necessary — they positively oppose it.”

So this is where the grappling really hits home. Obviously I think the liberal outcomes on these issues are the right ones - I want women to have the choice to control their own fates, I want kids to go to school and be safe from gun violence, I want immigrants to have the chance to fulfill their lives how they want to. But I also want conservatives to be less justified in writing articles like these. Yes, I want them to understand that what they think are mere “cultural” fancies for us are life and death matters. And also I want liberals to understand that what we think are mere “cultural” fancies for them are similarly viewed as life and death on the other side! There’s a reason that the words “identity politics” trigger immediate conservative backlash and that this author characterizes the Democratic platform as an “orthodoxy on race, guns and immigration.” How much of that reason is us?

And I want us to get creative in finding ways to move forward.

I don’t believe that we should ever “give” on these issues in the sense that we shouldn’t give them up, but I do think that we need a reframing. A more compassionate and creative conversation about how to make laws and party platforms that respect the needs and values of as many people as they can. After all, these are matters of life, death, and dignity for us all.

Of course, I don’t know how we could even begin to have these creative conversations. I don’t know how we could change our rhetoric so that the values behind the messages stay the same, but it’s framed in such a way that conservatives no longer immediately plug their ears and yell “blah blah identity politics blah blah”. Similarly, I don’t know how the conservative rhetoric could ever move from articles that make my heart tie itself into a knot toward ones that I could engage in without feeling like I needed to check my own humanity at the door.

This is where I get stuck. I think to get there, we all need to take a step back from our convictions and engage deeply, curiously, and above all empathetically. But I don’t see how that’s possible when part of the conversation centers around what feels like (to us) a categorical rejection of our underlying autonomy, dignity, and potential. I could never engage in polite debate of the pros and cons of abortion to a roomful of men who have never had a pregnancy scare, or felt helpless in a roomful of older men just because of their gender, or seen a picture of their lawmakers signing a deeply hurtful bill and wanting to cry because they were all men. (Obviously that’s the lens through which I’m interpreting this response, and certainly not the most threatening. I will never know what it’s like to justify my right to be alive to a cop that pulled me over for a broken tail light, to argue for my existence when I can’t even find a safe place to pee - let alone how to approach those conversations without being overwhelmed by a lifetime of trauma and survival mechanisms.)

I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that both sides are not the same with my deep conviction that we absolutely must move beyond simply opposing conservatives “fiercely and vociferously” if we want to progress faster than the simple rate of generational turnover in society.


I posted this article on my Facebook page and actually got quite a bit of interesting conversation. My friend sent me to this article, which does a really good job providing one example of the kind of reframing I’m talking about. Again, it’s not about changing our platform or giving on any of our ideals. It’s about changing the conversation, so that there begins even a hope of reaching the other side.